Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Trains in Science Fiction 2: Survivors (Terry Nation 1975 – 1978)

Two things.

This won’t be the last time I talk about ‘Survivors’. Not by a long shot.

But this will be the last time I make the distinction between the desolate, savage and truly shocking series, ‘Survivors’ from 1975, and the glossy, glib, Doctor Who-lite remake from 2008.

We only talk about the original Survivors here. I say so.

‘Survivors’ is the third most famous creation from Terry Nation after the Daleks and Blake’s Seven. A virus wipes out 95% of the population of the world. This is portrayed with unrelenting bleakness. Three quarters of the cast are killed off in the first episode. In fact no cast member is ever safe in ‘Survivors’ with major characters being culled every other episode. Only one original cast member makes the whole three series.

Post apocalyptic and ruined worlds always tick my box. If good science fiction is about ‘what ifs’ then the destroyed earth has to be the ultimate premise. Threads, Day of the Triffids, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, I love them all.

‘Survivors’ deals, with starvation, looters, rape, rabid dogs, martial law, fascists and small pox, occasionally in the same episode. We live in a time when the word ‘dark’ is used to describe a Harry Potter movie, but for once there is no other word. ‘Survivors’ is truly dark.

Let me give you some for instances.

In the episode ‘Law and Order’ a mentally challenged boy is wrongly accused of rape and murder. Our ‘heroes’ debate over what is to be done with criminals in a world without courts and prisons. They have a show of hands and take the boy outside and shoot him, then find out he didn’t do it.

In the episode ‘Corn Dolly’ Charles proposes that the women should let him impregnate them for the future of the human race. Two women fall pregnant but then die because they eat rotten fish.

In the episode ‘Revenge’ Vic, who has previously been permanently crippled and left for dead by Anne, tries to commit suicide. He then seeks revenge but then pleads with Anne to finish the job and by slaying him with a sickle.

One of my personal favourites is ‘A Greater Love’. Paul travels to a ruined Birmingham to gather vital medical supplies where he contracts a new fatal plague. On his return he is treated in quarantine by his rubber suited girlfriend. She declares her love for him as she administers a fatal injection.

Trains are used prominently three times in Survivors.

In the first episode they are used to demonstrate the broken links of the crumbling society. Train stoppages are shown as one of the first tears in the fabric. Great Malvern Station in Worcester is used as a location and doubles as 'Brimpsfield'.

In the second series Ruth travels to London and discover a dirty, broken London living in the rat infested London underground stations, Hanwell Station and Camden Station are used.

A lot of fans don’t like the third series but really this is where ‘Survivors’ gets most bizarre and feral. The cast are now dressed in rags and ride on horseback. The first steps to recovery and infrastructure are shown via the revival of a steam railway. The Severn Valley railway is used and the beautiful Headstone Viaduct is shown in another Series 3 episode.

The series is a long way from faultless. Producer Terence Dudley appears to not know what continuity is and thus decides to do away with it completely. The acting can be decidedly middle class and stilted. The dialogue can clunk. Although I love the slow ponderous pace, this may prove sluggish for the modern viewer.

What makes ‘Survivors’ fantastic though is it’s total singularity. It sets out with a goal, to tell you how absolutely foul the majority of people become in times of crisis and their complete determination to survive. It never blink’s from this intent, it never wavers.

'Survivors' can be bought pretty cheaply in a box set.


  1. Growing up in the Colonies (Canada) meant I got to see some of the old, good Doctor Who series but missed out on huge tons of old BBC science fiction it turns out I love. Ordering the Sapphire & Steel boxset without ever having seen it turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done for myself. This one I'd never heard of, but based on that clip with the nurse and plague victim boyfriend alone I think I have more importing to do...

  2. jonathan hirschman16 January 2010 at 00:48

    I'd never heard of it, being a Brooklyn boy. I've gotten a hold of some episodes, and it is really, really amazing stuff. Thanks the post, Darren, and best wishes towards a full recovery.

  3. I remember this being on when I was a kid. The title sequence alone terrified me and it haunts me still. Seeing it again on your blog here brings it all back and I remember it being just as you describe. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the new one, I knew they’d mess it up.